Thursday, June 11, 2015

WWII Air Show

"Lone Star Historian 2" is a blog about the travels and activities of the State Historian of Texas during his second year. Bill O'Neal was appointed to a two-year term by Gov. Rick Perry on August 22, 2012, at an impressive ceremony in the State Capitol. Bill is headquartered at Panola College ( in Carthage, where he has taught since 1970. For more than 20 years Bill conducted the state's first Traveling Texas History class, a three-hour credit course which featured a 2,100-mile itinerary. In 2000 he was awarded a Piper Professorship, and in 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wild West Historical Association. Bill has published over 40 books, almost half about Texas history subjects, and in 2007 he was named Best Living Non-Fiction Writer by True West Magazine. In 2013 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by his alma mater, Texas A&M University - Commerce. 

On Saturday, June 6 – the 71st anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy – a World War II air show was staged at the Rusk County airport on the outskirts of Henderson. Last year a similar air show – the first at Henderson in 30 years – attracted a crowd of several thousand, and another event was scheduled for 2015.

With Mark McLane of KPXI Radio
Airport manager Ron Franks, a decorated Marine aviator and a veteran of Desert Storm, contacted me with an invitation to present a program for the June 6 air show. I was delighted at the prospect, and when Ron suggested a program on D-Day, I told him that I had made D-Day presentations on numerous occasions in the past. But I pointed out to Ron that a more appropriate program might be “Texas and Texans and the WWII War Effort in the Air.” After all, the U.S. Air Force had its origins in Texas several years before World War I with a small “Aviation Section” (with enlisted men, one officer, and the army’s only airplane) of the U.S. Army Signal Corps was created. The aviators headquartered at Fort Sam Houston, but soon moved to the outskirts of San Antonio to America’s first Military Aviation Base, Kelly Field. As the U.S. Army Air Corps expanded, a larger base, Randolph Field, was erected on a 2,300-acre tract several miles outside the city. Randolph Field was nicknamed the “West Point of the Air,” and until 1938 – when gathering war clouds extended American military aviation training outside of Texas - every military aviator was trained in Texas. During World War II Texas, with its comparatively clear skies and good weather, remained a major training area for aviators. During the war there were 65 training bases in Texas (including Corsicana Field, in my home town). More than 200,000 military air men – including 45,000 pilots, along with navigators, bombardiers, and gunners – were trained in Texas.

The nation’s only all-female training base, Avenger Field, was located just west of Sweetwater, Texas. More than 1,100 patriotic young women – WASPs (Women’s Air Force Service Pilots) – were trained at Avenger Field. At Terrell, the No. 1 British Flying Training School trained Royal Air Force cadets from England. Gen. Ira Eaker, a native Texan, commanded the Eighth Air Force in England and developed the strategy of Daylight Precision Bombing. Another native Texan, Col. Claire Chennault, developed and led the famous “Flying Tigers,” who attacked Japanese airmen while piloting the war’s most distinctive warplanes. Texas airmen performed heroically in combat, earning several Medals of Honor as well as other decorations for valor. Lenses for the top-secret Norden Bomb Sight were manufactured in Tyler, Texas. The contributions of Texas and Texans to the air war were extraordinary.

My wife Karon and I put together a PowerPoint presentation for the program. We drove to Henderson on Saturday morning. Gates to the airport opened at nine o’clock, my program was scheduled for ten, and the air show would take place from eleven until one. Karon and I were met at the gate by my cousin, Albert Richards (our grandmothers were sisters). Al is a native of Henderson and a longtime minister of music at Turnertown Baptist Church. Al served as my intermediary with Ron Franks, and he procured a large screen from First Baptist Church. Inside the hangar where the program was to take place, Al, Karon, and Panola College Librarian Sherri Baker struggled with power cords and outlets to make operable the projection equipment. Meanwhile I did a live radio interview, and took note – and photos – of the superb vintage planes that were arriving or were already on display. A large crowd braved the hot weather, and I encountered several friends. The World War II air show was a memorable event, and as Karon and I drove toward Carthage we agreed it was a splendid way to celebrate D-Day.
With my cousin, Al Richards
The C-47 landed just after my arrival.
The Corsair had folded wings for storage on aircraft carriers.

Texan Ira Eaker commanded the Eighth
Air Force in England.

WASP color detail at Avenger Field
Norden bomb site in the nose of a B -17

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